We recently wrote to everyone with Environmental Stewardship agreements to outline some changes that we plan to introduce in 2023.
Rather than offering agreement holders an extension of a single year, we're offering extensions of 5 years.
This change, shaped by feedback, gives greater certainty and clarity to people in existing agri-environment agreements.
It also removes the burden of having to apply for an extension each year.
We already offer 5-year agreements for existing Countryside Stewardship holders.
Higher Level Stewardship agreement extensions
Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) is part of the Environmental Stewardship scheme. It is the predecessor to Countryside Stewardship.
At the moment, there are approximately 8,500 HLS agreements. They are still delivering important environmental benefits on our most valuable habitats. For example, on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).
Under European Union rules we could only offer annual extensions for HLS agreements.
Since 2019, we've offered annual extensions to HLS agreements in cases where agreements continue to deliver environmental outcomes.
Those in Environmental Stewardship told us that although annual extensions are welcome, longer extensions offer greater flexibility and certainty.
Not only does it reduce bureaucracy, it ensures the continued delivery of environmental benefits as we roll out our new environmental land management schemes.
For that reason, from 2023 onwards, we will offer existing agreement holders extensions of 5 years.
In exceptional circumstances, agreements could be extended for fewer than 5 years.
Moving to new schemes
Farmers have told us that they want to secure what they've delivered and do even more to build on the environmental benefits they’ve achieved.
In response to this, we're taking a more flexible approach. From 1 January 2023, all CS and HLS agreement holders will be able to leave their agreements early, without penalty, if they are offered a place on another environmental scheme.
For example, if you're an HLS agreement holder and you apply for CS in 2024 or if you're an HLS/CS agreement holder and you're offered a place in Local Nature Recovery.
By doing this, we can support people to transition to the new schemes and maintain environmental delivery on the ground.
We plan to roll Local Nature Recovery out gradually. It will be offered, in full, from the end of 2024. This flexibility gives continued stability up until then. It has no impact on our roll out plans.
A more flexible approach to checks
We listened to feedback from users and updated our approach to scheme breaches. Last year, we introduced new rules around scheme controls, inspections and penalties. These apply to agreements starting in 2021 or later.
Agreements starting before 2021 were, at that time, still covered by EU rules. We were still spending EU funding on the scheme, under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement.
From January 2023, we are able to bring all existing HLS and Countryside Stewardship agreements onto these new domestic terms.
This means that our new flexible, supportive approach to controls will apply to all agreements from 1 January 2023.
We've written to existing Environmental Stewardship agreement holders to let them know about these changes so they can prepare.
Later this year, we will send further information to those who could benefit from these changes in 2023.
If your Environmental Stewardship agreement does not end in 2023, we will write to you to set out your options for extensions later in 2023 or 2024. We'll also share more details for the extension arrangements for your agreement.
As mentioned, our new environmental land management schemes will be fully rolled out by the end of 2024.
We will provide a smooth way for those in existing agreements to transfer to the new schemes. Anyone in an existing agreement can also enter into the new environmental land management schemes so long as the actions are compatible and we’re not paying twice for the same actions.
For updates on our work, do subscribe to the Future Farming blog.